Selma Lagerlöf: How She Save Her Fan’s Life From the Nazis

Sometimes, reaching out to your mentors could save your life.

When she was 15, Nelly Sachs, a young Jewish girl from Berlin received a poetry book by esteemed Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, the author of Nils Holgersson, and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was starstruck. She wrote to Lagerlöf telling her that after reading her book – she decided that she too would like to be a poet when she grows up.

Astoundingly, Lagerlöf responded and thanked her for the letter. They kept corresponding for several years, and when the teenager was 21, Sachs published her first poetry book. Lagerlöf’s influence was evident in every word, image and motif in the book.

When Sachs sent Lagerlöf, a signed copy, the Nobel laureate replied back “Thank you very much for your lovely book! I couldn’t have done it better myself!”

Selma Lagerlöf

Cut to 1938.

Sachs was still in Berlin and was scared for her life.

The days were the days following the aftermath of Kristallnacht in Germany, and Nelly Sachs, who lived with her mother, feared for her life and wanted to escape.

However, then as now she was trapped: she did have a a foreign citizenship, which made immigrating almost impossible.

Desperate for her life, she had an idea: what if Selma Lagerlöf could help her receive immigration permit to Sweden.

She wrote her old idol in desperation begging her to save her life. “I would be grateful with every fibre of my being for the smallest chance to live”, she wrote to Lagerlöf.

To say that it was an audacious request is to put it mildly.

Quite frankly, it was an extraordinary request from Lagerlöf, who had never met Sachs in person, hasn’t corresponded with her in years, and was also in her 80s and in declining health.

But for Sachs it was a matter of life and death. Aside from the letter, Sachs also sent one of her German friends – who was Aryan and could therefore enjoy traveling privileges that she lacked – to Lagerlöf’s home.

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Lagerlöf did not stay indifferent to her old fan’s plea.

She appealed to the Swedish royal family and used her influence to sway them .

In the end, the Swedish royal family agreed to grant the young poet and her mother the special immigration permit.

It didn’t happen overnight, and by the time all the documents were approved it took almost two years.

When Sachs and her mother finally arrived in Stockholm, it was May 1940. Lagerlöf had passed away two months earlier, and her neighboring countries – Denmark and Norway – were already under Nazi occupation.

She and her mother found themselves in a foreign country alone. They lived in a small apartment in Stockholm, not knowing anyone, and Sachs supported herself with occasional translation work.

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When World War II ended, and Sachs learned about the destruction of European Jewry, she suffered a nervous breakdown that took her a couple of years to recover from.

Following the destruction of European Jewry, her poetry changed dramatically.

From poetry that mainly dealt with nature, she began to write about the destruction of the Jewish people and incorporated religious and Kabbalistic motifs into her poems.

In 1966, 26 years after she arrived in Lagerlöf’s home country thanks to her, she was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

That same year, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to two people: Shai Agnon and Nelly Sachs.

Before the ceremony, she said, “Agnon represents Israel and the future of the Jewish people, and I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people.” Israel was really excited (and rightly so!) about the first Nobel Prize awarded to an Israeli (Agnon), and Sachs’ win as overshadowed.

During her acceptance speech she said, “From a young age, I was so fortunate to exchange letters with Selma Lagerlöf… Through her, I learned to love her culture and her country… For me, my fairy tale became reality.” The letter Sachs wrote to Lagerlöf pleading for her life, is now on display in Stockholm.

Sometimes, reaching out to your idols could help not only advance your career – but also end up saving your life.

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